In the cultural and political turmoil of the twentieth century, the experience of displacement and loss of homeland has paradoxically become one of the few universal experiences. Some of the most successful modern writers have been those who have taken their personal experiences of exile and used them to address lasting human concerns. The exile is seen as someone doubly gifted: for preserving the wisdom of a lost past and for presenting this perspective to a broader audience in the adopted country.
The émigrés from Eastern Europe who resettled in the West during the Communist period were a particularly distinguished group of exile writers. Some of them even began writing in the languages of their new countries— perhaps among the best-known in English were Vladimir Nabokov and Jerzy Kosiński.
Czech literature, which gained great international popularity in the years following the Prague Spring in 1968, had its share of well-known writers in exile, but the most acclaimed among those who resettled in North America was Josef Škvorecký, who lived briefly in the United States and then moved permanently to Canada.
Škvorecký has written over 20 books, many of which feature his strongly autobiographical first-person narrator, Danny Smiřický, whom folk singer Karel Kryl (who also emigrated after 1968) called "the greatest literary figure of Czech literature in the second half of the twentieth century."
A life reflected in fiction
While Škvorecký is one of the Czech authors whose work has been most widely translated into English (probably rivaled only by Milan Kundera and Václav Havel), his recently published collection, When Eve Was Naked: A Journey through Life, provides a more extensive collection of his shorter fiction than previously available in translation. It brings together some pieces that had never been translated into English with others that originally appeared in journals (such as the Prague-based Trafika) and have not been published before in book form.
In When Eve Was Naked, Škvorecký has assembled a fictionalized portrait of his life from his early childhood to his seventieth birthday. As he explains in his preface, he had been urged by friends and readers to write his memoirs, but had decided that "there was very little worth telling that had not already been told in my stories and novels" (p xi). As a result, he has arranged his stories in chronological order according to his age in each story (in a nice touch, the first story, "Why I Lernt How to Reed" [sic], was actually the last written—in 1998.)
The book is broken into six sections, four of which cover the main periods of the author's life, separated by two additional stories which he has dubbed "interludes." This division is particularly fitting for a collection with an autobiographical slant, since like other Czech writers of his generation (such as Kundera) the changing phases of Škvorecký's life were accompanied by drastic political changes: a childhood in the democratic First Republic, adolescence under the Nazi regime, young adulthood under Communism, and finally a relatively peaceful middle age in the capitalist West.
Different, yet similar, regimes
In his novels, such as the award-winning Příběh inženýra lidských duší (The Engineer of Human Souls, 1977), he has illustrated the parallels between the repressive Nazi and Communist regimes (and has not hesitated to satirize leftists in the West who sympathize with Marxist societies without having lived under them).
A less-noted parallel, however, has perhaps never been shown more clearly than in this collection: the similarity between his early memories of interwar Czechoslovakia, probably the most "American" country in Central Europe (its liberal principles accompanied by ethnic conflict) and his later life in North America.
Life in these two societies is certainly freer and less tragic than the intervening years of totalitarianism, but also somehow more trivial. In any case, this connection gives the book a cyclical nature which it might otherwise lack: in the first story (mentioned above) the young narrator has his first taste of American ginger ale, while in the last story, "A Magic Mountain and a Willowy Wench," a young Canadian reader of Škvorecký's books travels to the author's hometown in Bohemia.
The latter, probably the most appealing of the Canadian stories included, also seems to be Škvorecký's first attempt at writing in English—a linguistic transition which he had avoided in his fiction until his most recent novel, Two Murders in My Double Life.
While some of the childhood episodes (including the title story) are charming, the stories with the greatest impact are those set in the Nazi and Communist periods. Much of Škvorecký's work is based on his nostalgic memories of being an ordinary teenager during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia: mainly interested in girls and music, particularly jazz, and still somewhat unaware (but increasingly conscious) of the Nazi horrors occurring around him.
One of his most moving books is Sedmiramenný svícen(The Menorah) from 1964, a series of portraits of Jewish residents of his hometown, such as his doctor and his German teacher, who were deported to the Nazi camps. Several of those stories are included in this collection, and while they are simply told, and the events they recount are probably familiar to contemporary readers, they remain a powerful account of the Holocaust from an observer who was neither directly victimized nor directly responsible.
It would have been worthwhile to include the other stories from Sedmiramenný svícen, bringing them together for the first time in English, rather than the more lighthearted story, "Feminine Mystique," that somewhat incongruously concludes the section.
The stories from the Communist period (which Škvorecký wrote before his emigration) are more ironic and less openly critical of the regime, but the title of that section, "The Evil Empire," makes Škvorecký's ideological position clear.
Like his portrayal of the German occupation, his stories from the Stalinist era are most effective when depicting a sense of loss—in this case, the repression of the free-swinging jazz culture which briefly thrived just before and after the war. "The End of Bull Mácha" (read this story in CER) and "Song of Forgotten Years" particularly capture Škvorecký's love of jazz, which has been a major part of his appeal for American readers.
The collection flows rather well, considering that the stories were written over a period of 50 years and are the work of seven different translators (all of whom cope quite well with Škvorecký's distinctively informal style). However, there are a few inconsistencies worth noting. Many of the stories are apparently narrated by Danny Smiřický, while some of the newer ones seem to be related by Škvorecký himself, blurring the line between the author and his strongly autobiographical but distinctly fictional alter ego. One of the translators has provided footnotes, while the others have not.
The main thing the volume lacks is a comprehensive introduction to put the individual stories into an overall context. Even if the majority of the readers of When Eve Was Naked are those who have read Škvorecký's work before, or are at least somewhat familiar with twentieth-century East European history, they would benefit from a sense of where these stories originally appeared and the circumstances under which they were written.
All in all, however, When Eve Was Naked is a welcome addition to the list of Škvorecký's work available in translation, not only for readers of his longer fiction, but for those just discovering his unique contribution to the field of exile literature.
Charles Sabatos, 22 January 2001
- Interview with Josef Škvorecký in CER
- Read "The End of Bull Mácha" by Josef Škvorecký in CER
- Recommended reading by and about Josef Škvorecký
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- Buy English-language books on the Czech Republic through CER
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